Adding HA to an existing house

xlucent

Member
I've been reading HA topics here for about 6 months now and am slowly starting to untangle the bazillion questions I have about how to introduce HA into my house without going bankrupt or getting divorced.

One of the things that's kinda frustrating is that I'm trying to do this in a 4000 sq ft house built in 1975. There's a basement under most of it but no attic over the "A-Frame style" main living area.

Almost all of the beginners guides and How-to guides on HA and wiring seem to focus on planning and implementing HA in new construction. Is anyone aware of any good resources that have information on how to do HA as a retrofit?

I've swooned with envy at the setups some of you have. I desperately want to have the kind of smart HA I see folks here talking about. I would love to have RFID tell my house which car just pulled in or motion sensors that turn on hall lights as a person walks or a mailbox that announces when the mail arrives.

I do have a pretty good wireless computer network in the house with music streaming from a dedicated computer to my main amplifier via an apple airport express. I have some lamps controlled by Insteon LampLinc's. I have a USB PowerLinc though so far I don't have much for it to control and haven't used it.

I really like the Insteon technology and have purchased several Switchlinc V2's to use to control lighting. Unfortunately it turns out that most of my wall switches don't have neutral wires. At least as far as I can tell since none of my wires use the nifty color codes thast get referenced all the time. All the wires in my house are black and white. I did find one switch in the dining room that =might= have a neutral wire. It has a couple white wires tied together with a wire nut that don't go to the switch. Since the wiring appears to run from that switchbox up to the outlet in the loft that has my computers on it (at least, the computers shut down when I turned off the breaker to the dining room light) it seems like the extra white wires might be a neutral but how do I tell?

The thought of trying to run neutral wires all over this house through the existing walls is incredibly daunting. I've seen a couple references about the possibility of (cough) connecting the ground wires instead of a neutral wire to the SwitchLinc's neutral but can't tell from the (ahem) non-recommendations if that is safe. I really don't want to burn my house down.

Anyway, the more I read the more confusing it all seems to be. My most basic questions seem to be:

1) Have any of you guys successfully retrofitted a 30 year old home with HA? How did you go about it? Are there any good sources of information on the process that a non-electrician can understand?

2) Should I even bother thinking about Elks and Stargates or should I just use one of my many PC's as a controller? I've been programming for about 25 years so I'm comfortable with PC's but M1's do seem mighty cool. How hard is it to incorporate an Elk into an existing home without existing structured wiring?

3) How do I tell if a wire is neutral without reference to a color scheme that is non-existent? The one wire that seems to be a neutral appears to be grounded since I get a reading off the voltmeter when I touch one lead to the line and the other to the unknown white wire. But how can I actually tell?

4) Are there any safe (code or non-code/ recommended or non-recommended) options if I don't have neutrals at my switches? I see that the Leviton motion detectors connect to the ground wire instead of the neutral but, hypothetically speaking and without any recommendation, would it hypothetically be safe to do that with a Switchlinc if I can't run a neutral to the box?

5) How the hell do you get your mailbox to talk?


:D

Bill
 

bfisher

Active Member
I retrofitted my house with HA. It was built in 1988, and has nuetral wires in all the switches.

It's a lot of work retrofitting... lots of drilling up (from the basement) and "creative" routing of wires.

I went with a Homevision Pro controller with Caddx security... and been very happy with the results (VERY).

Sorry I can't help more... just thought I'd let you know it's possible :D
 

Chas821

Member
Bill,

The white wires in you wall boxes are indeed neutrals. In the majority of wall switch cases, the feeder line from the breaker box and the load line to the light are both present in the box. All the neutrals (White) are tied together and secured with a wire nut. The black wires (hot) are fed to the switch(s). The problems people have when wiring light switches are dealing with the lack of neutrals (not required by NEC code) and three-way switch setups (two switches controling the same light(s).

NEVER, NEVER, NEVER wire a switch using the bare copper ground wire. You are open to (1) severe electrical shock, (2) fire danger and (3) completely invalidating your homeowners insurance. Did I remember to say never to do this????

Since I personally do not automate with an ELK or other controller/alarm system I can't comment on that. But I have been a Homeseer user for quite some time, using a dedicated PC and an Ocelot for my control. All my devices are x10 as I have been able to "X10-proof" my house (coupler-repeater, filters, etc). I'm still fence sitting on any of the newer technologies (Insteon, UPB, etc). As far as remaining automation questions, you have come to the right place to ask for guidance. Cocooners are very helpful critters!!!!

Another resource for additional information/help is over at the Homeseer message board (http://board.homeseer.com/index.php?).


Please note: I am not an electrician but have wired my share of automation switches. If you are not comfortable dealing with these issues, PLEASE CONSULT A LICENSED ELECTRICIAN!


Chuck
 

xlucent

Member
Chuck,

Most of my wall switches are indeed three-way switches. As I said in my original message, all the wires in the jboxes are either black or white. Some of the white wires appear to be travelers. I've only found one jbox that has what appears to be an actual neutral wire in that it seems to be grounded and isn't hot. Most of the other white wires appear to be travelers.

Bill
 

upstatemike

Senior Member
xlucent said:
...
1) Have any of you guys successfully retrofitted a 30 year old home with HA? How did you go about it? Are there any good sources of information on the process that a non-electrician can understand?

In most cases adding neutrals is not a fun project and is very difficult. I would look for a solution that does not require a neutral wire if it is an issue in the majority of your boxes.

2) Should I even bother thinking about Elks and Stargates or should I just use one of my many PC's as a controller? I've been programming for about 25 years so I'm comfortable with PC's but M1's do seem mighty cool. How hard is it to incorporate an Elk into an existing home without existing structured wiring?

Depends on how much you want to use hard-wired or wireless security type sensors. If wiring is a problem and you don't need a lot of security type stuff then maybe a PC based system with inputs from Z-Wave devices is all you need. I think Z-wave makes stuff that doesn't need a neutral???? And I'm sure there are Z-Wave keypads and thermostats you can use easily with a PC based system.

3) How do I tell if a wire is neutral without reference to a color scheme that is non-existent? The one wire that seems to be a neutral appears to be grounded since I get a reading off the voltmeter when I touch one lead to the line and the other to the unknown white wire. But how can I actually tell?

Every box should have a bare ground wire in it. A multimeter should show 120VAC between hot and ground and 0VAC between neutral and ground. Hopefully your electrician was consistent and always used black as the hot feed to your switches but the meter test will confirm this. In your case white will likely be the switch return to feed switched power to the fixture. (But it could also be a traveller if connected to a three-way switch.)

If your switch box just contains 1 white wire and 1 black wire connected to the switch, then you do not have a neutral. In the box with several white wires tied together, they probably are neutrals as long as the are not tied to any switches.


4) Are there any safe (code or non-code/ recommended or non-recommended) options if I don't have neutrals at my switches? I see that the Leviton motion detectors connect to the ground wire instead of the neutral but, hypothetically speaking and without any recommendation, would it hypothetically be safe to do that with a Switchlinc if I can't run a neutral to the box?

The Leviton motion switches are UL listed to be wired that way. Insteon switches will likely work if wired that way but I do not think you should risk bending the rules on such are large scale... especially if you are not that comfortable being an electrician to start with. I thought I read somewhere that there were some no-neutral Z-Wave products but I am not sure about that.

5) How the hell do you get your mailbox to talk?
:D

Bury a 7-conductor sprinkler cable out to the mailbox. Use 1 pair to feed a flat "pillow" speaker velcroed to the back (inside). Use the other wires to have a magnetic contact on the mailbox door, a reset button underneath, and an outside light to show you have mail. If the buried run is more than 20 feet long, be sure to put some surge protection on the wires where they enter the house.

Your controller detects the door switch and reset buttons, provides relay closers to turn on the light and enable the speaker, and feeds audio to the speaker pair.
 

Mike

Senior Member
To the last point, in regards to something like Insteon, have an electrician come in and give you an estimate. You may get into some tricky situations with three way installations (I did), but they will know how it can be rectified most efficiently.

Tell him you will supply the switches (my electrician for example was not familiar with these, I found it easiest to just supply them).

You should also consider that if you want to add a new switch where none exists for a virtual three way, the electrician can help you there as well.

It shouldn't cost you anything to find out what is involved and it may wind up being as easy as having him in for one day.

I put in some of mine, but when the wiring was not there, or things were not as I expected, I brought in a pro and am much happier for it. Plus no worries about burning your house down...
 

IVB

Senior Member
Use both an Elk AND a pc. You can use a program such as CQC to send commands to the Elk, [www.charmedquark.com] and effectively create an alternate user interface of your choosing. You can use any PC, $250 wifi tablet PC [i use the fujitsu 3400], wifi pda, or regular remote control to control your whole HA system [elk & otherwise].

CQC allows you to both to do "back-end" control over the Elk, and the "front-end" GUI design so you can create a UI that makes sense to you [not some mass-market UI that the HA program thinks should work for all folks].

Plus that'll give you other automation possibilities that the Elk doesn't handle [i.e., Home Theater Automation].

Here's a few links for what my fellow CQC'ers are doing with their systems, which include the Elk. Also check out the forum they're in to see what else folks are doing with it.

http://charmedquark.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=6558

http://charmedquark.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=6649

http://charmedquark.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=6660
 

Guy Lavoie

Active Member
I had to add a few neutrals to some light switch locations. I have an open (unifinished) attic so drilling into walls from above was easy. What I did was run a new (extra) 14-2 wire from the box at the light fixture down to the switch box. I brought down both the neutral and hot lines. This made it easier to convert the wall box to a double width and add an extra transmitter at the same time without needing to wirenut the hot feed to both the switch and the transmitter.
 

ver0776

Active Member
I would install the cheap and easy stuff first and worry about lighting and controllers later. Start with software based first...

Insteon has No-Neutral Switches on the road map (Later this year maybe, if I remember correctly.)

You can safely buy an Insteon USB controller (Even if it is mostly just controlling X10). You can also get the W800RF antennea, as it works with software and will work with your Elk if/when you get one later.

Buy lots of DS10A amd MS16A devices from X10 and be sure that you find their 4-for-1 specials on them. The DS10A should work out to about $5 each and like $8 for the MS16A. You also want to buy a bunch of magnetic contacts, surface mount, recessed, plunger... get a nice variety. You can start to wire door frames and windows. Where you can run wire from those magnetic contacts to a central location, go ahead and do that in case you get an alarm panel or Elk in the future. Where you can't run wiring, go ahead and put a DS10A on it.

There is soooo much for you to do I would not try to perfect the system at this point, especially waiting on swithes that don't need a neutral. BTW, Switchlinc RX switches will provide you with a nice switch now that does not need a neutral, but is only X10 and pretty expensive ($40-$50 per switch). But you can put in a couple where they have high impact because they will look good with the Insteon switches later.

You can also start on your Insteon/ICON lamp and appliance modules for more automation without a big commitment. This is enough to do automated under-counter lighting and other projects.

I would also look for a speaker switch, like the AB8SS, so when you want your Mailbox to talk, it does not take a dedicated soundcard or send the mailbox message all over your house.

What about Cameras? Have you started thinking about camera placement and getting them wired to a central location? Unlike magnetic contracts, I could never recommend wireless for video security... (Unless you don't mind neighbors and people driving by watching your footage. A 2.4g receiver on a laptop with a high-gain antennea and they are all up in your stuff)

Ok, now for you personally; What languages do you program and are you open to options that may involve coding? You may find working with an Open Source project rewarding, although I can not recommend it unless it was an existing passion =)

Vaughn
www.vCrib.com
 

xlucent

Member
Guy Lavoie said:
I had to add a few neutrals to some light switch locations. I have an open (unifinished) attic so drilling into walls from above was easy. What I did was run a new (extra) 14-2 wire from the box at the light fixture down to the switch box. I brought down both the neutral and hot lines. This made it easier to convert the wall box to a double width and add an extra transmitter at the same time without needing to wirenut the hot feed to both the switch and the transmitter.
Guy,

Thanks for the tip! For about half my house I should be able to do the same as what you describe. The wing of the house that has the bedrooms in it all has an unfinished attic overhead so I should be able to get down to the switches with neutral wires pretty easily.

The other wing of the house is essentially one really big A-Frame type room (about 80'X25') functionally divided up into the living room, dining room and kitchen. There is a loft over about 1/3 of it but no attic at all. There is a finished basement under it though. This is the part where running the neutrals is going to be really a pain. On the other hand, there are only two sets of switches (one single switch and one pair of three-ways) that I want to put Switchlinc V2's on in that part of the house.

Bill
 

xlucent

Member
upstatemike said:
xlucent said:
...
1) In most cases adding neutrals is not a fun project and is very difficult. I would look for a solution that does not require a neutral wire if it is an issue in the majority of your boxes.

2) Depends on how much you want to use hard-wired or wireless security type sensors. If wiring is a problem and you don't need a lot of security type stuff then maybe a PC based system with inputs from Z-Wave devices is all you need. I think Z-wave makes stuff that doesn't need a neutral???? And I'm sure there are Z-Wave keypads and thermostats you can use easily with a PC based system.

3) Every box should have a bare ground wire in it. A multimeter should show 120VAC between hot and ground and 0VAC between neutral and ground. Hopefully your electrician was consistent and always used black as the hot feed to your switches but the meter test will confirm this. In your case white will likely be the switch return to feed switched power to the fixture. (But it could also be a traveller if connected to a three-way switch.)

If your switch box just contains 1 white wire and 1 black wire connected to the switch, then you do not have a neutral. In the box with several white wires tied together, they probably are neutrals as long as the are not tied to any switches.


4)The Leviton motion switches are UL listed to be wired that way. Insteon switches will likely work if wired that way but I do not think you should risk bending the rules on such are large scale... especially if you are not that comfortable being an electrician to start with. I thought I read somewhere that there were some no-neutral Z-Wave products but I am not sure about that.

5) Bury a 7-conductor sprinkler cable out to the mailbox. Use 1 pair to feed a flat "pillow" speaker velcroed to the back (inside). Use the other wires to have a magnetic contact on the mailbox door, a reset button underneath, and an outside light to show you have mail. If the buried run is more than 20 feet long, be sure to put some surge protection on the wires where they enter the house.

Your controller detects the door switch and reset buttons, provides relay closers to turn on the light and enable the speaker, and feeds audio to the speaker pair.
Mike,

1) I thought about using something that doesn't require a neutral but it seems like people mostly aren't too happy with those technologies. Using something like X10 for lighting control in a house with 30 year old wiring that is probably pretty noisy seems like it would just be frustrating and have a correspondingly low WAF.

2) Actually we already have a proprietary security system. when we bought the house 15 years ago we had a security companycome in and wire the whole house. They maintain it and monitor the house. We're fairly satisfied with the service although I can see that there might be advantages to putting in something myself that doesn't require monitoring by an outside company. Changing out the security system would probably be one of the later phases of my HA project.

3) Using a multimeter on any of the white wires and ground gives me a 0VAC reading. But using the multimeter on the hot wire and the white wire I think might b4 neutral gives me a reading of 120VAC whereas using it on the hot wire and one of the other white wires gives me 0VAC.

4) Actually there are only 2 switches where I don't think I can run neutrals and was hypothetically thinking about maybe possibly using a connection to the ground wire....

5) Cool! Can't wait to see the mailman's reaction!
 

xlucent

Member
IVB said:
Use both an Elk AND a pc. You can use a program such as CQC to send commands to the Elk, [www.charmedquark.com] and effectively create an alternate user interface of your choosing. You can use any PC, $250 wifi tablet PC [i use the fujitsu 3400], wifi pda, or regular remote control to control your whole HA system [elk & otherwise].

CQC allows you to both to do "back-end" control over the Elk, and the "front-end" GUI design so you can create a UI that makes sense to you [not some mass-market UI that the HA program thinks should work for all folks].

Plus that'll give you other automation possibilities that the Elk doesn't handle [i.e., Home Theater Automation].

Here's a few links for what my fellow CQC'ers are doing with their systems, which include the Elk. Also check out the forum they're in to see what else folks are doing with it.

http://charmedquark.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=6558

http://charmedquark.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=6649

http://charmedquark.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=6660
IVB,

That's pretty much the sort of arrangement I was thinking about. The thing is, though, that we already have a security system provided by one of the high-end local security companies. We had them install it 15 years ago when we bought the house and have been pretty happy with their service. They maintain and repair it as needed and monitor the house 24X7. We, of course, pay them.

Although there are certainly plenty of valid arguments that can be made for replacing the proprietary system with my own automated security system, doing so is pretty low on my list of HA desires at the moment. (I already have a working seciurity system but I definitely don't have a talking mailbox or a house that knows who just drove away.)

So, if a security system isn't a priority, does an Elk/PC combo still provide anything of value or should I go with something like the Ocelot/PC combo that Chuck mentions?

Bill
 

ver0776

Active Member
On the way out of my house I snapped a couple of video clips of my talking mailbox with my little camera.

So far, the mailbox has over 25 responses, but you get the point after a couple...


Mailbox video


Vaughn
 

xlucent

Member
Vaughn,

That is great! I especially liked the "Woof woof. Just kidding."!

I've been taking the advice you gave in your earlier reply to heart. Just received my first shipment of ActiveEye motion sensors, credit card controllers, LM15A lamp modules and RR501 transceiver yesterday.

Since our house already has a working proprietary security system, I hadn't given too much thought to that stuff yet. After thinking about your advice, though, I realize that even if we keep the existing security for a while, I still have lots of HA reasons to want to know when doors open and close. So it looks like I'll be buying some DS10A's next.

My wife (who is as much a Luddite as I've ever met) announced the other day that she wants me to figure out a way to have the driveway lights someon when she pulls in the driveway, so I think I'll start with that this weekend. The only obstacle with it that I can see is that the driveway is about 250 feet long and is in the woods. We get lots of deer and turkeys strolling around so just sticking a motion sensor at the end of the driveway isn't going to work. Lights would be turning on all night long. I think maybe putting a couple of them about 15 feet apart might eliminate some of the false responses but will have to try it to find out. The length of the driveway is a problem too, I guess, since I think the range on the transceiver I have is only 100 feet.

Regarding the question in your previous message about programming: I write code in C, C++, Java and VB6 mostly. Know some assembler from the good old days when there wasn't really anything else. Spent a lot of years as lead developer for a software development group in the fed government but don't actively write code for a living anymore. My biggest problem at the moment is time; I spend a lot of time traveling and don't have nearly as much time as I would like to be home developing stuff.

Bill
 
Top